Developer: Motion Twin
Publisher: Motion Twin
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Category: Action & Platformer
Release Date: August 7, 2018 (EU & NA)
Die to fight another day!
Having started Early Access over a year ago, Dead Cells has gradually grown, as elements have slowly been enhanced and changed and it has all been leading to one special moment, a full-blown release and it does not disappoint. There is a reason why Dead Cells is one of the highly anticipated indie games coming to Switch this summer.
Having had the pleasure to receive access to the Switch build by Motion Twin, weeks in advance of the big release, it has been a pleasure to play and can report it did see some tweaks, so as to make Dead Cells feel smoother and more balanced. For a while now, this hotly anticipated game has been on the receiving end of never-ending coverage, thanks to press conferences and game focused news sites.
In the past, Motion Twin has said that their inspiration for Dead Cells, includes the likes of games such as The Binding of Isaac, Team Fortress 2, Dark Souls, Metroid and more and having played it, it is clearly evident that this 2D action-platformer, does have a great heritage that helps propel it forward.
Its inspiration isn’t it’s only hook though, as Dead Cells brings many new elements to the genre which in your first few hours of play through can seem overwhelming. The game really begins to open up within the first few hours of playing through, dying, and repeating these initial areas which give you just enough to satiate the taste for digital blood, which honestly, kept me restarting my run in hopes to gain just a bit more leveling up and unlocking new weapons to keep me pressing on.
Dead Cells is a roguelike-Metroidvania that combines the two genres to create procedurally-generated level designs which weapons, level design and enemy types and placement varies with each play through. The Metroidvania elements of the game appear in various upgrades that are permanent which allow for increased weapon drops, rune upgrades that open up branching paths to other biomes and more. When you start the game, you will have a limited set of weapons that you start with, as well as a limited amount of weapons you may find as drops from enemies or within treasure chest you will find in each run through.
As you gain experience with each sword, bow, whip, grenade, shield and other weapons you will find you will begin to assemble a knowledge of which weapons you like, as well as which weapons pair well with one another. You may find that freezing an enemy with an ice bomb opens up attacks from your slower but more powerful compound bow. As you dodge and roll passed enemy attacks your daggers are fast and able to cut down the hordes of bad guys, but they may be weaker and open you up for other elemental attacks like lightning bolts or bomb throws.
In Dead Cells, you play as a mass of cells that occupy and control the body of a deceased prisoner. Throughout the game, you will explore and uncover the mystery of what has happened to this distraught and decaying world as you read letters and signs left behind by those that had come before you. During your journey you encounter varying enemy types, none of which feel like retreads, all pose their own difficulty in how you approach defeating them.
In the beginning, when your health points are at 100 and each hit you take becomes critical you may find yourself trying to avoid enemies in hopes to gain access to one of the many timed rooms found in each biome. These timed rooms reward you with more cells which can be used to add to your upgrade tree for various weapons, permanent fixtures like a large health flask or the ability to save more coins if you die.
The game has a great mixture of balancing risk and reward and the stakes of each playthrough increase exponentially as you delve deeper through each biome where harder enemies reside or as you branch off within the initial biomes trying to find all of the secrets. The variety of gameplay possibilities is one that really hooked me from the start with Dead Cells.
I found myself juggling between trying to be quick and avoiding enemies in hopes to find one of those timed rooms and unlock more cells quickly, as well as finding a secret blueprint for a weapon I had been seeking. This led to me spending a minute or two within some of the biomes trying to find the quickest way out of the level and onto the next. This, of course, comes at a price as by not exploring the biomes deeply and finding all of the stat upgrades or best weapons, I was left weak and vulnerable when I would encounter any of the main bosses, which then corner you in a walled-off room and can be relentless with their attacks.
Other times I found myself being methodical and searching each nook of the map getting 100% of the biome revealed and killing every enemy presenting, finding all of the treasure, weapons and power scrolls (the method in which you can add points to your brutality, tactical, and survival skills). Those skills reset with each playthrough, but by seeking them out you inevitably power your character up for that run which you’re working towards reaching the final boss room.
The trade-off is that you may not be able to reach a certain biome as some are warded off by timed doors. By searching out each of the many treasures and upgrades though you may find that your character is grossly overpowered and can dispatch enemies quicker giving you a sense of badass assassin versus stealth ninja if you are more about speed than treasure seeking.
It is this gameplay variety, which is what kept Dead Cells feeling fresh with each time that I picked it up. I found myself jumping between quick successive playthroughs where my goal was just to reach certain timed doors and unlock blueprints which resulted in replaying sections over and over again until I found the right branching path. The alternative playthroughs were stressful in that with each cell I found which I was hoping to cash in on at the completion of a level, meant that the further and further my health was drained I was risking losing it all.
In a way, the game was a lot like a game of high-stakes poker with knives, bombs, and arrows being shot at me. The rush of completing a biome with 50+ cells and numerous blueprints in your possession was a highlight for me. Knowing that my game was over when I made a rush mistake in not assessing a room and its enemy types and the best order to kill them in, was often met with that sad death scene where my body lay on the ground and my clump of cells telling me I had died with sixty-four cells on my person.
Along with its extensive gameplay elements and multiple play styles supported, Dead Cells boasts a huge array of customizations and unique weapon types which I mentioned before. I never held two weapons thinking that they were clones of each other. Your weapons include varieties of heavy two-handed broadsword which swing slow but with devastating command, small bows housing ten bolts that do quick but minimal damage. There are whips that help to retrain shield-wielding foes and bolts of lightning that you can fry multiple enemies with at once. Along with the variety of swords, daggers, bows, whips, and shields you have traps and grenades.
In your repertoire of available skills, as they call them, you may find ground saws (one of my favorites), wolf traps, slicers, ice and fire grenades, throwing knives and more. Each of your weapons and skills has a color associated with them that a power scroll can increase the impact by increasing your brutality, tactical, and survival points. Along with that, there are multiple versions of weapons in numerical hierarchy I-V (at least that I have uncovered).
Those items can also have a + mode that allows for added abilities, some with balanced negative effects to you so as not to make them too overpowered. All of this is to say that Dead Cells comes with an extensive and elaborate tree of weapon and skills with each play through that can transform your each run quickly as you uncover these items or get stuck with lower tier start weapons and treasures that keep you from being the deadly assassin.
Audibly, Dead Cells has a soundtrack that teeters on the greatness of TV series like Game of Thrones. The orchestral sounds mix in beats of drums that can liven or stress you out depending on how good your current run is. The various biomes all have a unique mix that is played in a 4-6 minute loop that increases in complexity when you add in the music and sounds associated with some of the enemy types and boss fights.
As stated earlier in this review, Dead Cells has a variety of weapons and skills found within it, and each of those items comes with its own unique sounds. The broadsword has a crashing boom that seems to fit both the slowness of the strike and also the weightiness of it finding its target. Bolts from yours or your enemies bow will hum and zing across the screen with appropriate ‘sticking sound’ as it strikes through your armor. There are elemental sounds like the burning flames or ice blast that fit well with their respective weapons.
Some enemies have audio cues as well as visible attack ready animations to them that help you know when to dodge, roll, or jump out of the way or bring up your shield to parry. There isn’t a song or sound in Dead Cells that did not seem to fit along with the biomes, weapons, or skills. If you haven’t figured out by now there is a lot to like and love about Dead Cells.
I will admit that I was skeptical at first if the gameplay style of rinse and repeat short burst playthroughs was going to appeal to me. I can safely say that after twenty plus hours and being my go-to game over the last few weeks, Dead Cells makes well on every promise it set out to make. I love the pixel art 2D style and the subtle, as well as, stand out animation and level design. The fact that no two playthroughs will ever be the exact same is a testament to the care the designers and developer of Dead Cells took in crafting this action platform game.
There are also suspenseful moments throughout Dead Cells that hooked me and propelled me into getting better and investing times in completionist runs as well as a gameplay element of stealth and quickness. Along my journey, I didn’t encounter any game breaking bugs, but from time to time I did notice some framerate drops mostly when I would shatter floors and the camera would have to catch up to me or when there were rooms filled with ten or more enemy types each with their own unique animations. While those jarring movements did take me out of the game for a second or two none of them caused any “game ending” death sequences.
Dead Cells is a gem of a game. It’s clear the designers and developers wanted to showcase dedication and hard work from games that inspired two influential genres roguelike and Metroidvanias. The tying of those two genres and melding of a system of risk vs. reward gameplay mechanics makes Dead Cells a must-buy game and a highly recommended one as well. You will not be disappointed in this game.
THE VERDICT: 9/10
*Review Key Provided by Motion Twin
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This post was written by jonathanober